Practice of Debate by Monks in Tibet Cultural Background and Functioning

Posted on Wed July 18, 2018 in Indepth Tibetan Religion Articles.

In depth blog post about the practice of debating by monks in Tibet

Established in the 14th century by Tsongkhapa, the Gelugpa School, school of the yellow caps, is the most recent of the four great schools of the Tibetan Buddhism. It emphasizes the importance of a logical and rigorous debate and introduces, in monasteries, practice of regular debates as a substitute for tantric practices. The first one of the followers was the first Dalai-Lama, Gendun Drup whose His Holiness the Dalaï-Lama is the reincarnation.
4 noble truths of the Buddhism are: Suffering, the origin of this suffering shown by the ignorance due to a failing perception of the reality, the cessation of the suffering and the real path of the cessation of the suffering by the experiment of that would be the real nature of the phenomena.
As any Buddhist practice, the purpose of the practice of the debate is to overcome the first two pitfalls – suffering and the origin of suffering – by the intellectual search for the real nature of the phenomena. It suggests investing the bases of logics, The Indian texts, the Sutras and the Comments. The practice lasts on average 4 hours a day within monasteries: 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening. About fifteen classes over about twenty years are necessary to obtain the highest status of the community, these of Geshe.
How do the debates begin?
They are always public and take place in the monasteries. Two people face each other: the messenger of the tradition, defendant of a thesis, sits. The challenger, clarifier of the reasoning, defends no thesis and stands in front of him. To begin the debate, the challenger gets closer and stays a few steps away from the defendant, he makes a short clapping and pronounces a time-honored expression: “Dhih!” Expression referring to the Incarnation of the wisdom of all Buddhas, Manjusri, who is represented with the sword of intelligence and lively wit in the right hand and the book of doctrine in the left hand. The challenger reincarnates the weft of the debates of Manjusri. So, the apprenticeship of a rigorous logic serves the liberation of all human beings of the erroneous views and the suffering.
The first task of the followers is to establish a mutual agreement. The challenger raises a question to the defendant, this one exposes his thesis. The challenger can ask several questions. It is the approval of the defendant that allows to begin the debate itself. A single monk holds the defendant’s role whereas the challenger can be joined by other co-challengers. The questions of the challenger contain a subject, a predicate and a reason.
For example, the question (think you that) the subject, Socrates, is mortal because he is a man, attributes a predicate: be mortal on the subject Socrates by virtue of a reason: be a man.
The defendant has three possible answers:

He says : “I accept” (’dod) if the formulation of the challenger transcribes carefully his thesis.
He says : “The reason is not established” (rtags ma grub) if the subject doesn’t fit with the reason “Socrates is mortal because of being an elephant”
He says : “It does not pervade” (ma khyab). This possibility is a tibetan innovation: the reason does not allow the predicate, because there is uncertainty, contradiction or exclusion. “Socrates is a philosopher because he is a man”: this is an uncertain formulation: All men are not philosopher, the reason, doesn’t allow the predicate: be one philosopher. Socrates is a reptile because he is a man: this is contradictory because the terms man and reptile are exclusives, men are not reptiles.

How do the debates take place?

After the phases of common consensus, the followers establish the coherence of the Buddhist doctrine. The challenger has to repeat the formulation of the defendant even if he considers it inconsistent. The defendant defends the ideology of the text and embodies the unified doctrinal tradition by remaining serene and unflappable. The challenger tries to demonstrate two main types of incoherence: the non-concordance with the contents of being a recognized authority reference and the argumentation of the defendant.
The first example of the learning of the debate is the one of the color: the defendant asserts, in an absurd way, that all colors are inevitably red. The challenger doesn’t try to establish the antithesis. On the contrary, he takes back the formulation of the defendant to demonstrate the irrationality. To introduce the incoherence of the reasoning, the challenger has to introduce another color than red and assert that it is red.
How do the debates end?
The challenger shouts: “finished”, three times: The palm of the left hand strikes the right hand. The purpose of the practice of the debate is not to undo an opponent but to allow to overtake, together, the erroneous designs of the reality. In the disputation of the European Middle Ages, a professor outside the debate, detains the truth and teaches it to his pupils. In the practice of the debate of Tibetan Buddhism, the truth is thing to do and experiment, it is a process of self-training: the monk is a poet, in the etymological sense of creator of his phenomenological reality.


By separating the intelligence of individuals physical history in an environment and by making a clean sweep of the imagination, the science found itself in an cleft stick. For both precursors of the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, the philosopher of the Vth century Dignana and the logician of the VIIth, Dharmakarti, the words of the language are abstract constructions created by the imagination and the human intellect. Two researchers in cognitive science and artificial intelligence, Francesco Varela and Herbert Simon, reject the scientific speeches based exclusively on the logic because of their insufficiency to produce a speech of the truth.
FRANCESCO VARELA, disappeared in 2001, is the co-creator with His Holiness the Dalai-Lama, of the Mind and Life Institute: association which explores the relation of the science and the Buddhism as the methodologies for the understanding of the nature of reality.
As a biologist, he created at first the concept of autopoïesis to illustrate the property of a system to create itself. By analogy, Enaction or Embodied Cognition is a way of conceiving the spirit which emphasizes the way the bodies and the human minds get organized themselves in interaction with the environment. The brain doesn’t work as a computer, it builds its own world. The knowledge becomes creation of the reality. It arises from the action and requires a body to form. As for Buddhism, the man is a poet: He creates his world, his Gods, his truth by making them.


The Challenger claps with hands, stamps, shouts mockeries when he argues whereas the seated defendant, remains stoical and imperturbable. The left hand represents wisdom. The right hand represents the method and is the will to release all the human beings off the ignorance. The clapping represents the union of the wisdom and the method which helps to reach the state of the Buddha. To hold out the left hand after every clap, is to close the door of the revivals.
When the challenger raises a question, he holds out the right hand above the shoulder and above the head and the left hand is stretched out forward with the turned palm upward. At the end of his statement, the challenger claps with hands and stamps his left foot on the ground, in a synchronized way, a friendly gesture to stamp out any misplaced sense of pride. Then he removes the right hand, stretches out his palm forward and spreads the left hand with the turned palm downward. The kinaesthetic supports of the challenger wake up, refresh and update the dynamics and the lively wit of each of the actors. The attention is constantly required. The slightest absence can be fatal.
On the level of the language, both debaters use the rehearsal process to give itself time and look for the best answer to be brought to a formulation of the opponent. It is at first the rhythm which is looked for by monks and by the sound of which they recognize themselves, recognize their knowledge and have them to recognize as such by the public. So, both actors can claim to achieve knowledge: that of the text and the one which runs under the text. When a second challenger joins the first one, the rehearsals create musical chords. This synchronization is an embodied cognition, a thinking and making together.
These verbal and gestural synchronizations, the theatrically and the dramatization accompanying the argumentations of the opponents, make a choreography. The challenger, for example, stretches and tightens its rosary as a bow to propel its argument in the direction of the defendant, or he turns it three times around his head to point to an argument considered absurd.


The monk practising the debate is immersed, in his everyday life of Buddhist and as a tibetan, in a cultural universe filled with songs, music and dances crowned, in a singular relationship to gods whom he knows how he has invented to help him to represent itself and to live the logic of the contradictory which makes the phenomena. The practice of the debate is undoubtedly a propaedeutics: It doesn’t stage a relationship fossilised with a supposed fossilised tradition. It makes emerging a kind of physical embodiment of the tradition. The body becomes a practical means, a functional one of the Tibetan Philosophy.
Where the mandala represents with sand, where the mantra represents on paper, the practice of the debate, seems to embody and display the rhythms of a relation between the man and his cosmological environment. It appears like a mantra removed from the thread that suspends it from a tree, words carried by the winds of the dialogue to present another level of reality than the only learning of logic. Metaphorically, debaters discover the fire, make internal combustion engines which bang and eventually act as two co-pilots of a plane : they switch on gases, engines begin to buzz, making together the synchronized operations allowing the take-off until the plane reaches its cruising speed: The rhythm and logic fueling each other.